Column: Have you heard of a phrasal verb?


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

What’s a phrasal verb, and how can it make my life better? Those are fair questions, especially because it’s possible you’ve never heard of a phrasal verb.

I have a hunch you can figure out what it is. Think about “phrasal.” This will probably have something to do with a saying that involves multiple words. Phrases are frequently used in colloquial, or casual language and conversation. How about “verb?” This probably means a phrasal verb will contain — you guessed it — a verb. To quote Karen from “Mean Girls”: “I’m a mouse, duh!”

As you just deduced (quite studiously, I may add), a phrasal verb is a phrase that uses two or three words consisting of a verb and a particle and/or a preposition to form one semantic unit. Phrasal verbs also are known as “verbal idioms,” if that helps you understand the term better.

The easiest way to understand phrasal verbs is to share some examples: turn up, back off, tune out, hook up, play along and lean in. Now that you see this list, you probably realize we use phrasal verbs all the time.

What I find fascinating about phrasal verbs is that you can start with one base verb (let’s use “blow”) and, by adding different prepositions, you end up with completely different meanings: blow up, blow in, blow off, blow out. All those phrases have unique meanings. You take one basic verb and “jazz it up” with a punchy preposition. Verbs on their own are so basic.

On the other hand, some phrasal verbs with the same base verbs mean almost the same thing: back off, back away, back down. Those phrasal verbs all have something to do with retreating.

As we’ve already established, phrasal verbs are informal, which means you have to memorize what they mean. Non-native English speakers may have a hard time with these because they are a form of idiom. Recognizing and understanding idioms necessitates a contextual knowledge of culture and surroundings. All that to say, you have to “bone up on” your phrasal verbs.

My favorite thing about phrasal verbs? You can end a sentence with one, which means — at least in this case — it’s kosher to end a sentence with a preposition. So, lighten up. Calm down. Chill out. Phrasal verbs are part of our everyday language, and they’re not falling out of fashion anytime soon. Thanks for letting me geek out.